BMW could share some of its carbonfibre manufacturing clout with rivals such as Audi and Mercedes-Benz if the move allows it to boost economies of scale and make the state-of-the-art material cheaper to produce.
The German manufacturer has set up a factory in the US town of Moses Lake, in a joint-venture with carbonfibre manufacturing specialist SGL. The $100 million (62m) facility will have the capacity to produce around 3000 tonnes of carbonfibre in 2013 and while that figure sounds relatively modest, its worth noting that just 36,000 tonnes of carbonfibre is expected to be produced globally in 2012.
All of the Moses Lake-produced carbonfibre is destined for the new all-electric i3 city car, where it will be used to produce the 'passenger cell' that sits on top of the battery-driven powertrain. The new factory takes a thin polymer a by-product of crude oil refinement and treats it through an oxidation process in several ovens and furnaces, before outputting it as spools of fabric. This material will then be used by another new factory in Wackersdorf, Germany to produce the ultra-light, ultra-strong central construction that surrounds the i3s cabin.
The American site has the capacity to expand more than six-fold, and senior BMW sources have admitted that, while no plans are currently in place to team up with German rivals, allowing Audi and Mercedes access to the raw material produced in Washington could help bring down production costs.
'For the moment we are concentrating on maximising the competitive advantage we believe we have in this area,' said Dr Joerg Pohlman, the managing director of the project. 'However, of course there could be some appeal in allowing our rivals from Stuttgart (Mercedes) and Ingolstadt (Audi) to use the product produced here because we also have groundbreaking techniques in Wackersdorf that we could keep to ourselves.
'We are in an industry with relatively small numbers, so increasing the scales of production could play a big part in bringing down the costs,' he acknowledged.
Both Audi and Mercedes are developing eco-vehicles; Audis new head of technical development confirmed last week that he has a vision for a 250mpg+ four-seater based on the A1. However, neither brand is as close to using carbonfibre in construction (as opposed to body panels) as BMW.
Interestingly, though, while BMW itself has a stake in SGL, the VW Group is already a shareholder in the firm too. It purchased around 8% of SGL last year, in a deal worth around 120 million.